Social media & politics roundtable

Today I participated in a roundtable discussion about social media in politics hosted by South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, who wanted to learn more about what social media tools to use, how, and when. Here is a summary of my opening remarks.

=== I brought to the table two main issues I hoped we would consider during the conversation:

  1. The impact of social media on politics
  2. Expectations related to social media

1. The impact of social media on politics. I believe social media has the potential to facilitate and enhance the democratic process by empowering people. Social media empowers people not only because it grants them quick access to information, but especially because social media makes it easy for people to find others with similar interests, organize, apply pressure, and take action – all in a matter of hours.

2. Expectations related to social media. There is a specific set of expectations that have arisen around social media: expectations of authenticity, transparency, speed, engagement, dialogue, and conversation. At the same time, there is a perception that social media is “cool,” that it is the cutting edge, that everyone is using it, and that if you are not using it, you are left behind. This leads to many individuals and organizations (and I tend to think of our political representatives and other public figures as organizations, or institutions) using social media in a move that very much resembles jumping on the bandwagon.

So I advise people to consider some important questions before they start using social media professionally. The most important of those questions is : WHY? (and no, “why not?” is not a sufficiently wise answer).

WHY do you (want to) use social media? What do you hope to accomplish? How can it help you reach your goal, in this case, how does it help you better represent your constituents? How can you use social media to facilitate the democratic process? To listen? To help people form informed opinions? Do 140-character snippets do justice to explaining the complex issues we face? Also important is to ask:

WHO do you leave out?

Although I’m not aware of any reliable data about twitter demographics, given the constant online presence, I assume that twitter users tend to be relatively more affluent and relatively better educated. They are people who already consume a lot of information, who form and share opinions, and are active participants in the democratic process. By engaging with them on twitter, who do you leave out? You might risk leaving out the constituents who need you most.

Take a look at this article about the use of twitter in politics on Yahoo! Technology. Read the comments. The overwhelming majority ask “what is twitter?” “what is this article about?!” – which shows that even among people who are online, very few of them are aware of twitter or are twitter users.

So, it becomes very important to consider carefully the composition and information behaviors of your target audience before deciding if and how to engage them.

Of course, a related question is that of time and resources. Social media requires long term, sustained engagement. Do you have the time and resources required for that, and if you do, is that the best use of resources? ===

As I come across other accounts of this meeting, I will add links to this post to provide you with a more complete picture of what was discussed. I do remember Geno Church from Brains on Fire offering Rep. Inglis the same advice I give my students: “Don’t twitter before coffee and after beer.” 🙂

Please note that my participation in this roundtable does not signify any political endorsement of people or ideas. I am a teacher, and when someone wants to learn, I am happy to help. I am also eager to step out of the ivory tower whenever I get a chance!